Sunday, October 20, 2019

McQ's Best Of 1998 Vol 4 - Early Indie / Aging Alts

Just as with hard rock, college-oriented rock was undergoing a seismic stylistic shift in 1998, with alt-rock's hard-edged emphasis on deconstructed, messy, atonal dynamics and Brit-Pop's love of large-scale anthems giving way to a weirder, gentler, more introspective sensibility anchored around the recombination of previously unconnected styles and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumental arrangements.  

In short, overeducated white boy rock was shifting from an forward-looking obsession with assaultive noise to a backward-looking obsession with nostalgic beauty, and this mix highlights some of the 1998's best efforts to be found on both sides of that transition.

Here's the Spotify Link. Enjoy!

About The Artists/Albums/Songs Represented On This Mix:

1. Opus 40 - Mercury Rev: Devastated by the poor sales of their 1995 release See You On The Other Side (a record the act felt was their best to date), Mercury Rev was in utter disarray by 1996 - battling debt, addiction issues, and band member and label departures. But then, while in self-imposed exile, frontman Jonathan Donahue turned to some old children's records to help ease his depression, a lightbulb went off, and a new musical direction for the band was born. After tentatively reconnecting with guitarist Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak, the two relocated to the Catskills, enlisted the help of neighbors/local legends Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band, and set about laying down the basic tracks for one final album that would be "just for them." The end result, six months later, was Deserter Songs, the biggest success, both commercially and critically, of their careers, and an undisputed indie classic.  Opus 40 here, one of the first two songs they recorded for the album, celebrates the Catskills region that helped kindle their creative rebirth.

2. Party Hard - Pulp: The fourth and final single from Pulp's This Is Hardcore has always ranked amongst my favorite cuts from the album, a nifty rocker that nonetheless perfectly encapsulates the album's dark as night, pleasure-seeking-leads-to-emotional-bankruptcy vibe.

3. Holland, 1945 - Neutral Milk Hotel: Despite its upbeat, almost racuous nature, the only single from NMH's In An Airplane Over The Sea is a deep, poetic song of loss and remembrance - seemingly written from the perspective of Anne Frank's father (the only surviving member of the family) trying to pick up the pieces just after World War II has ended - that has touched many, many lives in a profound way.  Pitchfork recently ranked it as the #7 song of the 90s. It is also the song that Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was ten, famously chose to close out the final episode of The Colbert Report.

4. Quincy Punk Episode - Spoon: Though it was a commercial flop at the time of its release, Spoon's sophomore outing A Series Of Sneaks has, over time, become one of the enduring Texas-indie act's most revered albums. Punkier and more Pixie-ish than most of what would follow, it is nonetheless a seriously catchy effort, and those tight hooks would ultimately land the album on several retrospective Best Albums Of The 90s lists in the years since. 

5. The Tale Of Dusty And Pistol Pete - The Smashing Pumpkins: Coming on the heels of the death of his mother and the smash success of previous release Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness's top ballads 1979 and Tonight, Tonight, Billy Corgan was in little mood to rock, and the result was the mellowest, most delicate album of the band's career, 1998's Adore. Many fans rejected the album at the time of its release, but in retrospect, it's actually one of the band's finest efforts, filled with winning numbers like Perfect, Ava Adore, Apples and Oranges and Dusty and Pistol Pete here that successfully recapture the feel of those Mellon Collie ballads, and rating just behind Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream for me in the band's overall discography.

6. Cancer For The Cure - Eels: One of Electro-Shock Blues most jagged, acidic songs, the American Beauty soundtrack inclusion finds Eel's frontman Mark Everett metaphorically spewing bile at the Cure For Cancer research industry, which, after losing his own mother to the disease, he felt was misguidedly allocating far too much of its capital on curative research rather than discovering preventative measures, or as he put, "Like healing a wound instead of changing things, so the wound wouldn't happen in the first place."

7. It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career - Belle & Sebastian: Another melancholy gem from Belle & Sebastian's third full-length The Boy With The Arab Strap, the album's opener is a number easily misinterpreted lyrically, as the strokes referenced in the song, at least until the final verse, are not actual medical strokes, but "strokes of genius" that the song's many characters then fail to follow-up with further achievements.

8. Tropicalia - Beck: Though widely regarded as one of Beck's finest albums, I've never been as huge a fan of his 1998 Nigel Goodrich-produced, Grammy-winning Mutations (much preferring 2001's Sea Change and 2014's Morning Phase amongst Beck's mellower, sparer efforts), but the Odelay follow up does a have a few tracks I've always enjoyed, starting with record's lead single Tropicalia here, a tip of the hat to the Brazilian psychedelic band Os Mutantes, whom may have inspired the album's title.

9. Cruel Sun - Sparklehorse: As stylistically varied as just about any 1998 release, we're going to be profiling two more songs from Sparklehorse's magnificent Good Morning Spider on this mix, starting with my favorite of the album's several edgier alt-rockers Cruel Sun.

10. Cumpleanos Total - Los Planetas: Comparisons to R.E.M. are inevitable when listening to Spain's biggest indie act of the late 90s, Los Planetas. This is the first of three songs scattered over our '98 mixes that we'll be featuring from what is arguably the band's finest album, 1998's Una Semana En El Motor De Un Autobus (A Week In The Engine Of A Bus). 

11. Hope - R.E.M.: The band's first release following the departure of drummer Bill Berry and their first to ever include lyrics in the liner notes, UP saw R.E.M. shifting into Eno-esque electronic territory. I thought it was a tepid disaster when I first gave it a go in 1998, but while I'd never call it a top tier R.E.M. effort, I have warmed to it a touch over the years, and now find myself regularly drawn into the album's moody melancholy and lyrical obsession with the religion/spirituality vs. science/proven fact conflict, a theme which dominates my favorite song from the album Hope.

12. This Is Hardcore - Pulp: If This Is Hardcore's album cover offends you, you aren't alone. Nancy often reminds me it's her least favorite album cover ever, and female-championing graffiti artists had a heyday with it when posters of it appeared throughout the UK in 1998. And such negative reactions were exactly the aim when the band elicited the help of Peter Saville, digital artist Howard Wakefield and painter John Currin (who specialized in exaggerated images of the uncomfortably posed female forms) to capture the empty spiritual essence of the album's centerpiece title track, which depicts, in shocking fashion, a sexual relationship robbed of all genuine intimacy thanks to the male's increasing infatuation with imitating the cliches of porn.

13. My Descent Into Madness - Eels: Beautiful, airy pop song with a terrifying underbelly here, as E takes the drugged-into-contentment, drifting lyrical POV of his sister Elizabeth, who was institutionalized for a time to counter her suicidal tendencies, a near-last-resort measure that proved sadly futile.

14. Sunday - Sonic Youth: Following their profitable stint on 1995's Lollapalooza tour, Sonic Youth were able to construct their own recording studio, and for the first time found themselves in possession of something they had never had before when recording - time. And an abundance of time is the defining trait of the album that followed, 1998's A Thousand Leaves, which found the band stretching out their songs like never before, emphasizing the elongated interplay of Thurston Moore and Lee Rinaldo's guitars over the tighter, stabbing songs structures that defined the band's records immediately prior. Personally, though uneven, A Thousand Leaves has always rated among my favorite Sonic Youth albums.  I've just always jived with their tenth full-length's more relaxed pace and lighter (slightly lighter, this is Sonic Youth after all) feel. Sunday, the album's one single, at just five under minutes, is the record's second shortest song. 

15. Smokin' - Super Furry Animals: While the crowd-pleasing, mullet-fetishizing title track to Super Furry Animals '98 EP Ice Hockey Hair is a hell of a track on its own, I've always felt the EP's standout track was the smokin' Smokin' included here.

16. Ghost Of His Smile - Sparklehorse: Sparklehorse displays their playful, indie-pop side here with Ghost Of His Smile, for many Good Morning Spider's best song. 

17. Help The Aged - Pulp: This Is Hardcore's lead single and biggest hit is another bleak seedy wonder in which lead singer Jarvis Cocker, having reached his mid-thirties, envisioned his advancing age as a new pickup angle. Greatest pity-f*** song ever? You be the judge.

18. Holes - Mercury Rev: Here's one more from Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs, this time the album's poetic, childlike opener Holes, which though quite specifically informed by what the band itself had experienced in the difficult years leading up to Deserter's Songs, is a lament of youthful ambitions never quite achieved to which most can relate.

19. Ghost - Neutral Milk Hotel: While Ghost, like much of Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, has lyrics that can be interpreted through the prism of Anne Frank, band leader Jeff Mangum has stated he first conceived this song while singing to an actual ghost he was dead certain he had locked in his bathroom.  Crazy how some songs come into existence. 

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